Can Exercise Help Prevent Brain Decline as We Get Older?

By Amy Newmark, PT, NCS

PVHMC Physical Therapist

Older people who are physically active might help protect themselves from small areas of brain damage that can affect their movement abilities just by getting off the sofa and moving more. A recent study published in March in the journal Neurology found that the most physically active seniors did not suffer a loss in their movement abilities, even if they had significant age-related brain damage.

Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago tracked the activity of 167 people with an average age of 80. The participants wore movement monitors for as long as 11 days to measure both exercise and non-exercise activity. The researchers completed tests of the participant’s ability to move and did MRI scans to look for already existing age-related brain damage. Many older people have small areas of damage in the white matter of their brain seen with MRI. Higher levels of this damage have been linked to more problems with movement, such as difficulty walking.

The study found that the least active seniors were the ones whose mobility was most affected by age-related brain damage. Those whose activity level was about average scored lower on movement tests than those who were very active. The highly active seniors were those who walked an additional 90 minutes a day at 2.5 mph than those in the average activity group. The highly active group showed no decline in their movement tests, despite the amount of white matter damage in their brains.

The researchers say the study’s findings suggest that exercise makes the brain more resilient and helps protect the body’s ability to move – even if there is age-related brain damage. Previous studies have already demonstrated that moving more helps brain health by increasing blood flow, producing new blood vessels and improving the brain’s circulatory system.

The takeaway message is just to MOVE MORE! It doesn’t even need to be a formal exercise program as every little bit counts. Just getting off the couch more often, doing simple leg movements while watching a TV program, parking further from the store, or standing up and down from your chair a few extra times can add up and help you stay more mobile and independent as you age.